By Ellie Jelic, Zuora Office Manager – Atlanta
“How are you?” has never been more of a loaded question than in these past several weeks. I truly want to say I’m okay, I want to smile and “move on” because that is what I’ve been taught to do for so long.
Black people have been treated unfairly and unjustly since the beginning of us being in America. So, it’s not like my heart became bruised overnight. It’s not this one incident of a black person being killed for no reason that pulls at the fabric of my soul. My heart and the hearts of a whole race of people are being examined. Our individual experiences and our races’ history are expected to be shared. It’s just that now, all the unconscious protection I’ve built up over my lifetime are the very stories everyone wants to hear.
But, telling our stories is important to connect to a society that has been blissfully ignorant, turned a blind eye, or simply did not dig any deeper than the surface. The internet is saturated with stories and cases that go back decades on racial injustice – this is not new news. And while this is not new news for me, it is a moment of self-reflection.
I am no different from many black people who take precautions as they leave the house; whether it’s making sure I don’t have my hoodie up in public, or in a retail setting or bringing my apartment ID along on a jog in case anyone decides to question where I live. And even on jogs or walks, I make an effort to smile at anyone I pass, so as to erase any biased opinions because of the color of my skin. My mom has always told me, and still tells me today, that if I ever get pulled over to immediately call her so she can “be there with me.” I called my mom a few weeks ago when I went to my friend’s house to pick up a package while she was out of town and it seemed kind of crazy that I needed to alert my mom about this simple errand, but here’s a thought, being black in a neighborhood that isn’t your own might lead to someone thinking you’re a criminal. I’m not, but my mom was happy I called, and again, she told me if anything happens I must FaceTime her immediately.
The emotions, the fear and anxiety when you are outside of the workplace don’t just drop away when you enter the doors or turn on your laptop to go to work. If anything, the workplace can be a place where feelings are amplified. Being a woman in the workplace is one thing and being a black woman is also another. The confidence I have comes not only from parents who have taught me I can do anything and be anything, but also my experiences. My mom was an advocate for my early education as my teachers would simply not give the same attention to my learning and needs as other non-black students. Seeing my mom advocate for my rights to the fairest and best education grew a notion of: if you see something is not right, you have to say something to make it better.
Prior to Zuora, when I was starting my professional career, I was one out of five black people in a company of 2,000 employees. I had been asked if there was something more professional I could do with my hair that wasn’t an afro. Without an answer from me, I was told I should do something more professional if I ever wanted to continue to work in an office setting. I changed, I conformed. But as my time at that company continued, I realized I did not see myself in a role any higher than my current position. I and others had no one to aspire to, no one that looked like us that had “made it”. As I tried to “make it,” they had made it clear that they didn’t need new opinions if those opinions came from someone that didn’t match their skin color and would make their yearly team photo “different”.
These types of microaggressions can kick down your confidence and make you second guess yourself and the prosperity you may not have inside your workplace. As my fellow ZEOs in Zuora’s Atlanta office know, I’ve rocked my afro proudly since day one.
So, the questions remain: what can be done to help make sure both our workplace and society are more inclusive? What can you do to help make sure that injustices here, there, and everywhere don’t continue to happen?
It’s important for each of us to give time for personal reflection, to take the first step into tough conversations and learn that allyship is necessary to build a bridge for inclusivity and support within our workplace and society. There’s also education through a whole mix of media and donating money, but I believe the biggest thing is to not take on the world of injustices, but to look into your local communities, government, schools, etc. See how you can make an impact for the people living close to you and as your community changes, the state will change and so forth. This is the same for the workplace – do your best to advocate for your teammates, take value in new perspectives and opinions, and if you see something wrong, say something to make it better.